In the debate pitting defenders of racial preferences in college admissions against proponents of meritocracy, both sides implicitly accept the premise that there must be a single national elite. What divides the two sides is how the members of this single national elite are to be selected in their late teens or early 20s. But there is an alternative to a national oligarchy selected on this or that basis by admissions committees at a few prestigious universities: a plurality of separate elites, each with its own constituency, its own distinct entry requirements, its own internal career ladders, and with little or no lateral mobility between different elites.
Societies in which members of a single, homogeneous national elite with similar backgrounds circulate easily among all of the various centers of power—government, business, academe, and the media—are familiar in the modern world. In Britain, graduates of Oxford and Cambridge and a few elite private schools who live in a few neighborhoods in London dominate powerful institutions. In France, the grandes écoles play the role of Oxbridge in Britain. The University of Tokyo functions similarly in Japan.
Increasingly, the pattern in the United States is similar. It resembles a candelabrum: Those who manage to squeeze through the stem of a few prestigious colleges and universities in their youth can then branch out to fill leadership positions in almost every vocation, including the arts, outside of the military and the clergy.
After attending Columbia University, Barack Obama went from being a community organizer to a state legislator to a US senator and president, to end up today in his latest career as a producer of documentaries in Hollywood. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton are now co-authors of political thriller novels. Did I mention that Obama and the Clintons also have their own nonprofit foundations? In this respect, they resemble their fellow Baby Boomer, Donald Trump, the Wharton grad who inherited the family real-estate business and has dabbled in television, menswear, golf courses, and hotels, and even founded his own university before becoming president in his first campaign for public office.
It must be frustrating for ambitious screenwriters and directors and producers and talented novelists and nonprofit specialists who spent decades going through the paces in their respective vocations, only to be shoved aside in favor of dilettantish ex-presidents and ex-first ladies hopping from one occupation to another at the top. The lateral circulation of members of the same elite through revolving doors in the public, private, and nonprofit realms is a formula for oligarchy.
There is a better way: a system of plural elites, each with its own admissions standards and internal promotion mechanisms. Examples of vocations that are structured along these lines are the US military and the clergy of the more organized among the organized religions. In the case of the military, not only is working your way up through the ranks one way to become a general or an admiral, it is the only way. Likewise, the papacy isn’t an entry-level job open to people who spent most of their lives outside of the Catholic priesthood.
As the example of the US military suggests, the siloed career with internal upward mobility and little or no lateral mobility at higher stages is hardly a vestige of the past. On the contrary, it is perfectly modern. In the early years of the American republic, and even during the Civil War, the way to become a colonel in the militia was to be born into or married into a prominent local gentry family, and campaign contributors and influential politicians could be appointed as generals in the Army by friendly presidents like Abraham Lincoln.
In 21st-century America, campaign donors can still buy prestigious ambassadorships. But in today’s United States you can’t graduate from Harvard or Yale or Princeton, do a stint at McKinsey, work for Goldman Sachs, dabble in making documentaries about climate change or global poverty, invest in a startup, donate heavily to one party or the other and be appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, any more than you can become Archbishop of Boston with that résumé.
Labor unions are another example. Leaders of traditional labor organizations work their way up through the hierarchy. They don’t parachute into the top in midlife after another career in finance, real estate, or political campaign management, brandishing their Ivy diplomas.
As recently as the 1960s and ’70s, the American elite was a mosaic made up of parallel, siloed occupational and functional elites. Outside Wall Street and the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency and some yacht clubs, an Ivy League diploma wasn’t a particular advantage. Even on Wall Street in pre-regulation days, inheriting a seat on the stock exchange from your dad and predecessor in the Roman-numeral surname series was more important than where you went to school.
Trade-union leaders and church hierarchs and small-town courthouse gangs and big-city machine politicians were powers in the land on the basis of the numbers they represented, not their CVs. The working-class, shoe-leather reporters hadn’t yet been edged out of the media by the Yale-educated trust-fund babies who swarmed journalism after Woodward and Bernstein made it cool with their Watergate reporting.
Artists and novelists were often downwardly mobile bohemians from upper-middle-class families. If they went to college, they were more likely to drop out and move to Paris or Greenwich Village or the rural West than to complete masters degrees in writing or fine arts.
It was this pluralistic system that the radical sociologist (and my fellow Central Texan) C. Wright Mills described in The Power Elite (1956). Mills made much of the ability of “the power elite” to control multiple institutions through interlocking directorates, like corporate and philanthropic boards.
But Mills himself acknowledged that the American elite had grown more, not less, pluralistic over time. In his account, the amateur members of the gentry who dominated politics for much of American history had been joined in the 20th century by corporate executives, who were elevated by a system of economic power that had grown up outside of the control of old patrician families. Even more recently, according to Mills, writing in the 1950s, World War II and the Cold War had added military leaders to the politicians and economic managers in the elite.
What these otherwise quite different elites shared was participation in certain influential institutions at the heights of their careers. For example, in the 1950s, a retired admiral, a chief executive of an industrial firm, and a career politician might all sit on the board of a national charity or be appointed to a government commission. But this didn’t alter the fact that the military, corporate, and political figures had spent their lives before middle age working their way up in separate occupational silos with no significant circulation of personnel among them: The admiral had gone to the Naval Academy, the corporate executive might have had an engineering degree from a state school, and the successful politician probably was a graduate of the prestigious local private or state university in his home state or region. The members of the power elite of C. Wright Mills might have rubbed shoulders in middle age, but they hadn’t usually been roommates in college.
For Mills, a populist radical writing in the Eisenhower era, the meeting of middle-aged figures as ambassadors from their separate and parallel institutions proved that power in America was intolerably concentrated. From today’s perspective, however, Eisenhower’s America seems like a model of elite pluralism, with multiple independent elites working their way up in careers in separate silos.
Today, sadly, America is becoming a society with lessening vertical mobility and increasing lateral mobility at the top. We can be thankful, however, that at least some barriers to lateral occupational mobility among elite university grads remain: America will be spared an Adm. Obama or a Donald Cardinal Trump.